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Belarus: CIS Summit Long On Ceremony, Short On Substance

A two-day summit bringing together the presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers of the 12-member Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) ended in Minsk late Friday (1 June). RFE/RL's correspondent in the Belarusian capital reports.

Minsk, 1 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The CIS heads of state, minus the leaders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, ended their Minsk summit Friday afternoon (1 June) with a final news conference during which they summed up their discussions.

As with the meeting of CIS foreign ministers on 31 May, Russia occupied the most prominent place, with President Vladimir Putin seated center-stage on the podium and fielding most of the journalists' questions.

With this summit clearly short on news-breaking decisions, the CIS leaders emphasized the symbolic value of their meeting and they took pains to stress the usefulness of keeping channels of communication open. Several leaders noted the advantage of being able to hold several bilateral and trilateral meetings while attending the summit and within a short period of time.

This gathering once again made it clear that while the CIS is likely to continue existing as a framework organization, it is indeed on the bilateral and trilateral level that real issues are likely be discussed and resolved. As the old saying goes, "too many cooks spoil the broth."

President Putin expressed optimism that efforts to establish a free-trade zone across the CIS would soon come to fruition.

"I think a free-trade zone practically has almost been formed. The Russian Federation has signed bilateral agreements with all CIS states. The question remains unresolved only with Ukraine. We approach the problems which face us in this negotiation phase with understanding. And I hope that during June, all outstanding issues which have up to now been controversial will be finally resolved."

A significant amount of time at the summit was devoted to problems facing the Caucasus region, with Putin meeting with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan and Georgia yesterday, within the framework of the newly-established "Caucasus Four" grouping. Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, speaking at the closing news conference on 1 June, expressed newfound enthusiasm for Russia's role in the region.

"We Azerbaijanis are very impressed and heartened by the fact that Russia, after the election of Vladimir Putin as president, is actively and very sincerely devoting its energies to this issue, both as co-chairman of the OSCE's Minsk Group, along with the United States and France, and by itself."

Both President Putin and Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze downplayed the sometimes difficult relations between their two countries, expressing the hope that problems could soon be resolved. Nevertheless, despite his diplomatic language, Putin gave no indication that Russia will abolish its newly imposed visa regime with Georgia, saying this will only happen when the reasons for imposing the visa requirement are eliminated.

"The elimination of the causes which led to the introduction of the visa regime will create conditions that will allow us to abolish this visa requirement. We would very much like to resolve this issue within the framework of an agreement we are now preparing. As you know, the agreement is being prepared at the initiative of the Georgian president. We appreciate this and would like relations between the Russian Federation and Georgia to develop positively on all fronts."

To sum up, no new ground was broken at the Minsk summit. Yesterday's announcement of the creation of a five-nation Eurasian Economic Community had been widely expected and only time will tell whether the new body proves more effective than the current customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus.

The Minsk gathering proved long on ceremony, with leaders holding their most important negotiations in small sub-groups, behind closed doors. The administration of host President Alyaksandr Lukashenka proved both efficient and seemingly glad to keep the journalists a safe distance away.